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August 16, 2013

People-Powered News Source Puts the Local Back Into Journalism

Drawing on over twenty years of experience with non-commercial, community-based media, Laurie Cirivello lead the design and launch of The Rapidian, a citizen journalism project of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, where she serves as executive director. Created in 2009 to address the changing face of journalism, The Rapidian is designed to empower neighborhood residents and groups to report local news from the ground up.

“With fewer reporters today, the number of positive, authentic stories about people and neighborhoods is shrinking significantly,” says Cirivello. But under her guidance, The Rapidian is reversing the trend in Grand Rapids. Today the online community produces a consistent, quality news source and generates placemaking ideas to strengthen community in the city. The ideas they turn up are often as quirky as they are fun: a recent article suggested pickle making with your neighbors, and another yarn bombing as a placemaking tool. These ideas, among others, fulfill Cirivello’s main goal of inspiring readers to make real-world, face-to-face community connections on the local level.

Cirivello made the connection between her dual passions for community-based media and placemaking and the commons last fall at OTC’s inaugural Commons Solutions Lab, an event that brought together a talented group of individuals from a wide range of sectors working to grow and strengthen the commons movement. Since then, On the Commons’ staff have enjoyed reading The Rapidian and working to articulate how placemaking and commoning can strengthen and enliven communities.

I recently had a chance to ask Cirivello a few questions about how the commons influences her work and what she sees as the greatest opportunity and obstacle for the commons movement today.

— Jessica Conrad

How did you first learn about the commons?

Three years ago I was invited to give a keynote speech at the Bioneers Conference in Traverse City on the media commons. But at that point I didn’t really know how media fit into the commons because I had always thought of the commons as literal shared spaces. The conference really got me thinking, “OK, many of the things that would constitute our commons are physical, but not all of them.” I suddenly realized that I had been in the middle of this work for a long time without knowing it.

What led you to found The Rapidian?

Being in non-commercial, community-based media for well over twenty years, my colleagues and I have always tried to take developments and lessons from the commercial media and technology world and repurpose them for the non-commercial sector. That’s our role. Recently there was a point when traditional journalism, especially print journalism, began to implode because the pressure of the Internet became too intense. The consequences are now clear: we have fewer reporters with fewer specialties, and the whole face of journalism has changed.

What did that mean for community media? We saw the impact on a local level. With fewer reporters and fewer lenses, the number of positive, authentic stories about people and neighborhoods shrank significantly. And while the Internet seems to have the potential for being a great equalizer, without purposeful and well-planned collaborative projects, the Internet is actually having the opposite effect. It separates the community by giving everyone their own personalized news stream.

To make a long story short, when seed project funding became possible through the Knight Foundation, for addressing the issue of diminishing local journalism in 2009, we, the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, partnered with The Grand Rapids Community Foundation to envision, design, and fund a different kind of news and information platform that is really powered by the people and informed by our community. And we called it The Rapidian.

How does the commons influence your work at The Rapidian?

After The Rapidian got started, we were thrilled to see what kind of stories bubbled up and how the community was really good at holding itself accountable. Then I had a chance to attend the Commons Solutions Lab at Blue Mountain Center, and, frankly, it was an incredibly transformative experience because it gave me the tools to articulate what was happening at The Rapidian. I was able to connect concepts and ideas that dealt with real, measurable things, like the level of bustle in a community center. But beyond that, I think the most transformative learning was that commoning isn’t something we lobby government to do. It’s intensely personal, and it’s empowering. There’s work to be done at all levels—on our own and in groups. When I came to fully understand the commons, it became part of almost everything I do, and permeated the work of The Rapidian.

Can you describe your new section called “Place Matters”:http://therapidian.org/placematters?

Place Matters is an entirely new and self-contained section of The Rapidian. It’s the first section that has its own content editor, and it’s an online gathering place where people can go to get inspired and empowered. We feature local placemaking and commoning efforts to demonstrate how we can all have a role in making the places where we live, work, and play better today and better for the future. We also archive content so we can continue to learn from ideas and resources shared across the platform.

One of my favorite parts of Place Matters is a new sub-section called Inspiration, where we hunt for ideas that make people want to say, “Oh! I could do that.” Yarn bombing, for example, is really novel here in Grand Rapids, and now people can go to Place Matters to see articles about it and other guerrilla beautification projects. It’s just so cool to see how these ideas are percolating. One person can have an idea, sure, but when you have the opportunity to see that others are thinking about the same things, people start to feel encouraged, ideas grow, and connections form offline. The Rapdian is not intended to be the be-all and end-all. We want it to inspire face-to-face, offline, real-world action on the hyper-local level.

What strategies do you recommend for making more people aware of the importance of the commons?

We must stay focused on what human beings really need and want: beauty, fun, connectivity, play, and joy. That’s what the commons is all about, and we have to remind people of that. We need to invite people, too. They have to feel welcome to join the conversation.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to creating a commons-based society right now?

To me, the biggest obstacle we face is the ongoing struggle to find balance in the American Dream. I’m very interested in the public perception of immigration because we are all immigrants. That’s why the American Dream exists. People who believe in the Dream keep coming, and if they stopped we wouldn’t have one anymore. I’m no political wizard—I’m a joy person—but I think too many people have the “us and them” instinct. We must create ways to have conversation with people who are perceived to be different than we are. We have to rediscover what we share in common. And we’ve got to create intersections that are human and authentic and one-to-one; otherwise it’s always going to be an “us and them” battle. If we can work on this dynamic, I think we will be more successful.

What is the greatest opportunity to strengthen and expand the commons right now?

There are times when promoting a concept feels like beating your head against a wall. But hyper-localism and placemaking are ideas du jour. They’re hip, they’re tied to the commons, and we need to capitalize on the trend.

What are a few of the most beloved commons in your life and community?

One would be the Grand River, which, on a side note, is at the center of an interesting conversation. We’re trying to turn the river back into a playground instead of just being water moving through town in a cement corridor. The art commons also have a lot of support here in Grand Rapids with our many community-based, participatory art projects. And of course I’m very interested in platforms where short stories can be shared, either in person or online. The “story commons,” the idea that my history is not mine alone but all of ours, is incredibly important to me.

We often call people who do your kind of work commons animateurs or commons catalysts. Do you use a word or phrase to describe what you do?

I’m a community member. I always try to use words that resonate with people, and I have to say that the animateur thing doesn’t work for me; it’s too big, too complicated. Anybody can be a commoner, and I have used that word to describe myself because it doesn’t set me up as an expert. Anyone can be a commoner.

This interview has been edited and adapted for OntheCommons.org.